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Innovation and the 2010s
Reflecting on a decade of technological advances
Ranjan here, and today I’m getting nostalgic.
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at a working group of media innovation people. We discussed how their companies experiment and operationalize emerging technologies, which led to a lot of discussion about what the future could look like. Yes, sometimes my content strategy gig leads to some fun stuff.
Someone put up a slide about how their company is thinking about the world in 2030. It had the word "CONVERGENCE" in huge letters, along with pictures of people with robotic exoskeletons, talking about a tipping point where AI, neural interfaces, quantum computing, and IoT will all come together to fundamentally change how we experience the world. Masa Son would be proud.
I thought back to the beginning of the decade and something hit me. In 2019, sitting in front of me was a 2018 Macbook Air that was charging an iPhone X.
In early 2010 I had started business school at INSEAD in Singapore. And on my table:
That's a MacBook Pro charging an iPhone 3GS. The cable is different, the computer is a bit smaller, the phone is bit clunkier, but it all looks kind of the same. And I started looking around me. Everything kind of looked exactly as it had a decade ago.
Did we experience real innovation in the 2010s? If you were to transport someone from 10 years ago to today, what would blow their mind?
2010 Ranjan - welcome to the end of the decade.
First thing to note - I found that picture above just by searching "computer" and "2010" on Google Photos. That's pretty magical. But is that really world-changing? This felt like what would be reasonable for 10 years of search improvement. What about today’s tech is so profound that it would be hard for 2010 me to comprehend it?
I kept thinking of this as I walked home. Everything around me kind of looked the same as it did a decade ago. The jackets people were wearing, the bags they carried, the hats they wore.
Certain things felt futuristic like that guy zooming by on an electric skateboard. Otherwise, everything looked like NYC a decade ago. There weren't holographic projections or robots walking alongside us.
When I walked into my apartment, 2010 Ranjan had his first real "holy shit" moment. I have all the lights in my place wired to Alexa and we voice command everything. Saying "Alexa, turn on the living room" and seeing a faint blue ring on a weird plastic black tube light up, and magically all the lights in my living room turning on, starting to feel like like the future we were promised.
TAKE A LOOK BACK
I'm a big fan of new years and new decades, but it's less about making resolutions and more about looking back. I'm writing this post because I'm curious what Margins' readers think about the technological innovation of the 2010s. Has your mind been blown? Is it what you expected?
We keep hearing about the onset of exponential innovation, yet everything feels incremental at best.
I spend a lot of time reading a lot about cutting-edge technologies and there is a lot out there that advertises how rapidly accelerating the pace of technological progress is becoming. Wait But Why's Neuralink piece is the one which really sold me that we're a few years from cyborg-dom. But then when I think back to what the year 2010 looked like, it's barely technologically discernible from today, at least visually.
I still use Gmail. It looks and acts pretty much the same. They introduced autocomplete which I guess could eventually be mind-blowing, but isn't quite there. I use YouTube....and it looks almost exactly the same (another picture from 2010):
I was using Spotify and while the algorithm has probably improved and they now have podcasts, the overall functionality feels unchanged. I'm one of those people that deleted Facebook and Instagram, but from what I see, they operate pretty much the same. I guess Stories are innovative, but we're still a long way from all spending time in weird VR communities where we walk around without legs.
And don't get me wrong, I'm hugely bullish on all VR and AR, but that stuff is a long way from my day to day.
ARBITRAGE, NOT INNOVATION
I genuinely spent the past 24 hours obsessing over this question and just looking around me. When a huge Amazon box showed up with a diapers and formula (#DadLife) I remembered how ecommerce has reshaped the way we live. But this is something that still feels incremental. 1 week changed to 2 days changed to 1 day. That’s still pretty cool, but in the past few weeks, I've wondered what the "true innovation" of Amazon's delivery prowess is. I, along with most, had long been sold on a vision of whirring warehouse robots, of which there are certainly many. But a lot of great recent journalism has shown that a big part of the "innovation" is just a greater appetite to work people to death.
Ride-hailing is another thing that might surprise a 2010 time traveler. After decades of raising your arm to hail a cab, you can now just tap a button on phone and see your driver on a map. It's also reshaped the way we live. And it's also another one where I question whether the true innovation was around regulatory and labor arbitrage. Also, in Singapore you could hail a taxi via SMS back in 2010 and it would show up to your door, so perhaps this doesn’t make the cut.
This kept bringing me back to my co-host Can’s very popular post about most innovation really being business model innovation (told through the lens of a very insider-y Twitter joke construct). If the engineer-half of the Margins is saying that……
The positive outlook: Maybe the past decade’s advancements have all happened in the background. I started this meandering post by noting how insane it was that Google Photos could find my photo of a computer from 2010. Also, my iPhone looks generally the same, but the photos and video it takes now are incomparable to 2010, and that's all under-the-hood compute and hardware.
I noted that voice assistants are mind-blowing, and I still marvel at how they recognize and process what I tell them. But we can't really "see" them. So maybe the past decade was about building the machine intelligence that will unleash a flurry of visible, day-to-day technologies that will make 2030 look like Bladerunner. Maybe I can finally start bio-chipping and won't be thought of as weird (I think about this a lot).
The negative take: regular readers know how I feel about the Big Tech oligopoly. Is there an argument to be made that they choked off real innovation over the past decade. They allowed anything that would directly help their businesses, but bought and killed the things that could've changed our lives. If Instagram didn't kneecap Snap by copying Stories, could we all be wearing Spectacles right now and AR would’ve become a real thing? We’re still using the same exact apps and they kind of look and feel the same.
Could the way we social network (as a verb) have been something more than just scrolling through a visual feed and tapping Like? Voice search is starting to change the way we search, but otherwise, seeking out internet information looks pretty much the same. Though, I guess Google Snippets could be the innovation? And LinkedIn! Damn you LinkedIn, just improve a little bit! I still believe in you!
I also acknowledge that maybe we don’t want things to look too different. Facial recognition tech is already here, but I’m glad we don’t have big, futuristic cameras stuck to every lamp post. Would I really want to look out my window and have a bunch of drones hovering nearby?
GETTING DEEP TECH
One of the things that makes writing Margins posts is that, for both Can and me, technology is a lifelong obsession. But it's not a blind love. It's a mindful one. So I'll leave our readers with the question: Do you think we lived up to our tech potential over the past decade? Will the next decade realize exponential change, especially the kind that you can see around you? And finally, will my kids one day marry robots? Because I really do wonder about this.
In thinking about the tech that still blows my mind, here are a few:
The Peloton Bike: Y’all keep hating on that ad, but I’m still going to say that the entire Peloton experience is still pretty mind-blowing.
Sous Vide: While my love of fried chicken is very public, the former trader in me certainly has had my share of great steaks. This is a surprising one, but I will sometimes set a plastic-wrapped steak into water and start the sous vide from my phone while still at work. And to come home to a steak that, with a quick sear, looks like this, thanks to technology, is still utterly head-spinning for me.
If in the future I have cholesterol problems, the cause will probably be well-documented in a trail of newsletters.
Sidecar (from the new MacOS): This is another random one, but as someone who has to move around a good deal for work, but also prefers working with a secondary monitor, the new iPad <> Mac Sidecar connection has been life-changing. And perhaps that’s the perfect way to end this post, because, looking at that same laptop and iPhone, but adding in an iPad and seeing and windows seamlessly navigate back and forth, with no wires…that’s pretty amazing.